Francisco Manuel Oller (1833-1917) was a major Puerto Rican artist whose portraits of governors and slaves and landscapes of sugar plantations and peasant shacks celebrate both the island's natural beauty and its social strife. A friend to the great French artists of the late nineteenth century, he took part in the French avant-garde movements of Realism and Impressionism. Oller is cited as the only Latin American painter to play a role in the development of Impressionism.
Although he lived for many years in France and Spain, Oller always returned to Puerto Rico. "Francisco Oller was the first painter to ponder deeply on the meaning of Puerto Rico," wrote Haydée Venegas in Francisco Oller: Realist-Impressionist, the catalogue of a 1983 Oller retrospective at the Ponce Art Museum in Puerto Rico. His paintings of island life convey a strong, but not uncritical, passion for his native land. Oller's work was a "profoundly moving perspective on the virtues and defects of the Puerto Rico of his era," wrote Carlos Romero-Barcelóin Francisco-Oller: Realist-Impressionist. Oller was inducted into the Order of King Charles III of Spain and exhibited in Spain, France, Vienna, and Cuba, but much of his art was lost after his death.
Oller was born in San Juan on June 17, 1833, the third of four children of Cayetano Juan Oller y Fromesta and María del Carmen Cestero Dávila. At age 11, he began art lessons with Juan Cleto Noa, a painter who ran an art academy in San Juan. Recognizing Oller's talent, Puerto Rico's governor, General Juan Prim, offered to send him to Rome in 1848, but his mother felt he was too young. Oller was also a gifted musician and sang with the Puerto Rican Philharmonic Society as a teenager.
From 1851 to 1853, Oller studied at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts of San Fernando in Madrid, under Federico Madrazo y Kuntz, director of the Prado Museum, and became familiar with Spanish art. On his return to Puerto Rico in 1853, he began a successful career as a portraitist, winning the Silver Medal at the Fair of San Juan in 1854 and 1855.
In 1858, Oller traveled to Paris, staying for seven years. While working as a sexton and a baritone in an opera company, he studied under Thomas Couture and the Realist artist Gustave Courbet and mingled with artists and intellectuals in the cafes. He knew Camille Pissarro, Antoine Guillemet, Claude Monet, Pierre Renoir, Paul Cézanne, and other artists who were later known as the Impressionists. "All of these artists helped to mold Oller's method and style of painting," wrote Edward J. Sullivan in Arts Magazine. He also enrolled in the Academie Suisse and was admitted to the official Salon. During this period, he painted "El estudiante" (The Student), using Emile Zola as model, according to Peter Bloch in Painting and Sculpture of the Puerto Ricans. The painting has hung in the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
In 1865, Oller returned to Puerto Rico, an island struggling for identity under Spanish rule. "There he used his brush, as he himself put it, 'to lash out at evil and extol the good,' " wrote Marimar Benítez in Américas. In 1868, Oller married Isabel Tinajero. They had two daughters, Georgina and Mercedes. Oller was part of the privileged Creole class, but he was also a nationalist and a liberal, sharply critical of colonialism and slavery. As a Realist, Oller felt art had a social, political, and religious mission to contribute to society, wrote Albert Boime in Francisco Oller: A Realist-Impressionist.
Oller sailed back Paris in 1873, where he painted "Orillas del Sana" (Banks of the Seine). In 1877, he moved to Madrid, producing his famous "Autorretrato" (Self-Portrait) in 1880, influenced by Spanish painters such as Diego Rodríguez Velázquez. Oller held a successful exhibit of 72 paintings at the Palace of La Correspondenciz de Espana in 1883. After a stay in Puerto Rico, he returned to Paris in 1895, embarking on his Neo-Impressionist phase, as shown in two important paintings, "Paisaje francés I y II" (French Landscapes I and II, 1895-1896). These natural scenes "capture the rich atmosphere and coloring of Neo-Impressionism," wrote Benítez.
In 1868, Oller founded the first of many art schools, the free Academy of Drawing and Painting in San Juan. Known for his interest in geometry and perspective, he wrote a popular book on perspective and drawing. Oller was "a born teacher," wrote Dr. René Taylor in Francisco Oller: A Realist-Impressionist. Yet his fame never translated into great wealth. "The number of private art patrons was small" in Puerto Rico, notes Bloch.
In his later years, Oller could not pay for art supplies with his small teacher's stipend. "Apparently unable to buy materials, he was reduced to painting on any surface that came to hand: stray pieces of panel, the lids of cigar and match-boxes, yaguas and even tambourines and smoker's pipes," wrote Taylor. He died on May 17, 1917, at the Municipal Hospital in San Juan.
After his death, many of his paintings deteriorated in Puerto Rico's tropical climate. In the early 1980s, the Ponce Art Museum launched a conservation effort to retrieve and restore his work for "Francisco Oller: A Realist-Impressionist," a retrospective commemorating the 150th anniversary of his birth. The exhibit of 73 paintings traveled around the United States, providing a new look at Oller and his contributions to the history of art and the art of Puerto Rico.
Benítez, Marimar, ed., Francisco Oller: A Realist-Impressionist, Ponce Art Museum, 1983.
Bloch, Peter, Painting and Sculpture of the Puerto Ricans, Plus Ultra, 1978.
Américas, July/August 1985.
Artnews, April 1988.
Arts Magazine, May 1984. □